Underworld: Evolution

Underworld: Evolution (2006)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Derek Jacobi
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Music Video

"We are oddities of nature… humanity has no place for people such as us."

When word of the first "Underworld" came out in 2002, I went through the roof. For years, my friends and I had been talking about the need for a hard edged horror movie that pitted vampires against werewolves. Looking back now, I wonder why we didn't have better things to talk about. All the same, when the movie finally released in 2003, my excitement abruptly ended. While I was expecting a no-holds-barred, claw-to-claw slash out between my two favorite beasts of Hollywood, I got "The Matrix" bathed in blue light with a pack of mongrels shooting it out with a bridge club of whiny aristocrats. I still enjoyed it somewhat… but I knew it was high-end, entertaining junk that didn't come close to fulfilling my desire for the ultimate werewolf verses vampire flick. When "Underworld: Evolution" was released last year, I went in hesitant but came away mildly pleased. It's still not close to the perfect clash of the titans I've dreamed of, but it's a few steps closer.

In "Underworld: Evolution", Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire assassin, and Michael (Scott Speedman), a hybrid werewolf, discover the truth concerning the roots of the war that has raged between their two bloodlines. To be clear, this is still high-end, entertaining junk and I doubt you'll be very impressed if you liked nothing in the original. But it's also 106 minutes of violence and action that doesn't rely on the first movie's obsession with Uzis and glowing bullets. Bullets are no good against granddaddy vampires and werewolves and, as such, we get a lot more of the claw-to-claw battles that I wanted. The script is still pretty weak and the story is nearly non-existent… especially for something so overwritten. The only big highlights are Beckinsale, who turns in a troubled waif performance that adds dramatic weight to the tone, and Bill Nighy as Viktor, who elevates the film every time he's on screen. The effects are a blast and the set of wings on Viktor are some of the best CG has given us. The action scenes are extremely well choreographed… although I desperately wanted more scenes that resembled the kinetic fight between Selene and the police officers in the forest.

As you probably expect, there are some huge problems. First off, the biggest travesty is the 'ultimate' werewolf that Viktor is trying to set free. We don't see this baddie until the end of the movie but, even when we do, he's a thousand times less impressive than the werewolves from "The Howling" and "An American Werewolf in London"… movies made centuries ago by special effects' standards. Watching him is literally like watching a blood covered, german shepherd muppet and I found myself looking for the wires and sticks that were manipulating the creature. I respect the filmmakers desire to make this a practical effect, but come on… Kermit would put this thing to shame. Secondly, the secret society of humans are one of the most poorly written and ill-conceived components of the series. Even the casting of Derek Jacobi as Alexander can't bring anything meaty to the role other than a good delivery of awful dialogue. This group is gone so quickly, it's a wonder why they were even in the story other than to toss out a story exposition to those of us in the audience. Lastly, Scott Speedman and the character of Michael Corvin. I love the concept of a human-vampire-werewolf hybrid but it's all talk. Like the first "Underworld", Speedman basically turns black, grows longer fingernails, and everyone talks about out how much stronger he is. Ugh.

Did I mention the blue? Do you like blue? I hope so, because you're about to get a lot of it. Even so, the transfer of the film is gorgeous and one of the few early Blu-Ray titles that really shine. It boasts a near-spotless MPEG-2 transfer and you can tell that the movie was polished in post production several times, even to a fault. The picture can feel a bit flat at times with the palette remaining so limited in every shot and every now and then you'll catch a bit of tiny artifacting in the darkness. However, you'll find yourself wowed on several occasions. My biggest complaint, and one I think will apply to a lot of high definition transfers of movies that rely on special effects, is that many of the effects look artificial at this level of detail. In the theater, I remember thinking how well executed the CG components were… I could hardly detect the seams. But in high definition, I could spot them much more frequently and they were occasionally so obvious that they were distracting.

The audio track is presented in the uncompressed PCM format that I'm being spoiled by on so many Blu-Ray releases and it's one of the best aspects of the film. The mix is very well done with booming explosions and gunfire blending with whispering and quiet scenes perfectly. There's never a question of what you should be hearing and I never detected any distortion or peaking from my system. There is also a welcome layer of ambiance in the soundscape where forests, caverns, and ancient buildings exhibit a rich and detailed abundance of sound effects.

The extras are ported over from the standard DVD edition of the movie and center around a selection of six featurettes that are only moderately interesting. However, the commentary with the director and key members of his crew is an amusing listen and really engaged me throughout. They sound like a fun lot who owes a great bit of their childhood to comic books and I respect their ability to talk about where both "Underworld" films succeeded and failed. You get the idea that movie making isn't just about talent, it's about bringing that talent together with an end result that is as good as your concept. The track occasionally gets too technical but it's rarely about tiny choices like grip procedurals or equipment selection, but about the complications with stunt work and other topics that are generally more interesting.

In the end, I still had a good time even with "Underworld: Evolution" even though it only engaged the easily entertained, shallow sixteen year old that still resides somewhere in my brain. The movie reminded me of the smash-em-up action extravaganzas of the late eighties and it was an enjoyable ride for what basically amounts to one long chase scene. However, use your opinion of the first "Underworld" to gauge your likely reaction to "Evolution"… it's different and a good step in the right direction, but much of it is more of the same.